What will ruin your next hunt? (Feet Edition)

20180701_170202I am embarrassingly close to making an appointment for a pedicure. I am not usually one to partake in such indulgences, and I think my slight uneasiness with physical contact would restrict me from enjoying it (I’m not a hugger).  But, I would be willing to put all my predispositions aside if it would help me be a better hunter.  There are dozens of ways for your feet to betray you when you’re out on the trail for a week, so you should do what you can to head off those issues before they start.  Pedicures have become a common maintenance technique for professional athletes and other manly types, so I assume I could see some benefit from it as well.  Blisters, calluses, nail issues, and calf-down muscle tightness can be addressed in a 30-minute appointment.  I do suffer from some frequent ingrown toenails, so I’m curious to see what those nail-clippers could do in the hands of a real pro.

So while I go through several iterations of dialing up the local pedicurist and shyly hanging up the phone as soon as they answer, take a minute to read through some of these tips below.

Insoles

I have gone through some minor obsessions with aftermarket insoles.  I don’t know why, but even high-end boots come with a flimsy sliver of foam as the first line of contact for your feet.  For some, this minimal amount of cushion directly underfoot may be enough, but others may want more.  Insoles are pretty cheap when compared to a pair of boots, but they can make a significant difference in the way your boot feels and performs.  They can reduce foot fatigue and keep you going hiker longer.  Generally speaking from experience, as the weight of the boot increases, the need for a more substantial insole increases as well.  With a taller heeled boot, more pressure is going to be transferred to the balls of your feet, which will benefit from more cushion.  I’ve actually found that a little thicker insole can add noticeable insulation to lighter boots, keeping your feet warmer in cold conditions.  After trying out dozens of pairs of insoles looking for something to keep my feet going longer each day, I usually look for an insole with some arch support structure (my feet are generally classified as “normal arch”), medium cushion, and some ability to form-fit to my feet.  Make sure your boot has enough room in the toebox before adding a thicker insole, as crammed toes are not going to make your feet happy.  Take notice of the top surface of the footbed that will be contacting your foot.  Sometimes they can be too silky, and become irritating once your merino wool socks get a little sweaty and start sliding around.  The best bang-for-buck insoles I have found are the Columbia Enduro Soles.  They are thermo-molding, so pop it in the oven at

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Columbia Enduro Soles (Columbia has bought out Montrail)

200 degrees for 2 minutes, throw them in your boots, and slip your foot in for 5 minutes to create a custom foot cast.  I usually wear my hiking boots to the store so I can check fit before I purchase.  You should least take the factory insoles of the boot with you for fit comparison.  Most aftermarket insoles are made to be cut down to fit, and the original insole is usually a perfect template.

Focus on your weak points

Listen to your feet while you’re out in the field.  There was a survey for marathon runners several years ago, where they were asked how they coped with pain while running races.  The survey revealed that the more successful runners did not try to block out nagging pain, but focused on it.  By focusing on it, they were able to make adjustments to their running stride to make sure the discomfort did not become an injury that impacted their race.  Be aware of your body out in the field, and make decisions that are ultimately going to keep you out on the trail.  Be mindful of how your feet perform in the offseason, and make adjustments to ensure they are ready to perform when it counts.

Break-In (For boots and feet)

Wear your boots in the offseason, but don’t wear them out.  I had a buddy that wore his hunting boots all summer for work, only to discover the waterproofing had failed once we got into the backcountry during a snowy, wet September.  Everyone knows that you’ve got to break in your boots.  I like to take new boots, immediately oil them, and wear them laced up moderately loose (The loose lacing will help from pressure points forming between the tongue overlap and your lower shin).  I’ll wear them loose around town for a couple days before tightening them up to break-in in the field.   Depending on the boots, the field break-in period can be a couple days or a couple weeks.  Part of this is getting your boot to flex around your foot, and part of this is getting your foot used to your boot.  It can be subtle, but your foot will “get used” to your boots as well.  If you’re using custom insoles, it can be good to throw them into your everyday shoes for a couple weeks before you plan to be out in your boots.  Ultimately, you want to have confidence in your gear, so try and simulate your activities before you find yourself in a situation where poor boot performance will ruin your hunt.

Don’t let your feet get soft

Do your foot strength conditioning while relaxing.  I used to have discomfort in the joints of my big toes when on hunts where I was hiking off trail in steep terrain.  One day I made the correlation between the pressure points in my toes and the curl of the toes of the slippers and flip-flops that I’d been wearing around the house.  I decided to stop wearing any footwear when I was at home.   I began going barefoot on solid surfaces like wood floors, concrete slab, and laminate.  Big difference made!  It only took a couple weeks until I noticed an improvement in my feet.  I realized I had been making my feet into a couple of major-league wussies while sporting comfort footwear for evenings and weekends.  I guess the bigger point from this small experiment was: My feet could get tougher by adding some moderate minimalism.  I didn’t go wild and begin running marathons barefoot, and I didn’t begin preaching to my friends about how humans were meant to walk without footwear and that modern shoes were changing our musculature and posture.  But, I was wearing silly foot-cushions too much, and I believe it was detrimental to my feet.  More importantly, it was affecting how well I could perform in the woods.

 

What will ruin your next hunt?

A quick overview of things to consider in the offseason.

20180513_125309.jpgAlright, GO!  Lack of preparation, lack of skill, misunderstanding the terrain, misunderstanding your quarry, poor woodsmanship, lack of mental toughness, poor physical conditioning, equipment failure, laziness?  How about several of those problems, to some degree. I like to consider it a “smattering” of inefficiencies, and it’s basically my list of focus points.  Maybe this list of issues could simply fall under the heading of “A Lack of Honest to Oneself”.  I have gone into more than one hunting or backcountry situations (or daily life situations, really) feeling totally prepared, at least until I reached the point where I realized I was totally unprepared.  It can have real consequences, too.  I almost missed out on a great bull on my first backcountry solo hunting trip, simply because I had not given enough consideration to my mental conditioning.  Prior to the hunt, a week without human contact or personal interaction was not something that I expected to have any trouble with.  As it turned out, the solitude was miserable, and I chose to end the hunt a couple days early.  I lucked out by filling my tag the morning I had decided to pull out and head for home.  If it weren’t for luck, all those months of preparation for the hunt may not have added up to much more than a very long and drawn out learning experience.  Prior to that hunt, I had considered myself a rather socially independent and stoic person, but I had to immediately reevaluate my condition.

Preparing for a hunt should be fun (mostly).  But what happens when that sensation of enjoyment gives way to feelings of tedium, or futility, or obligation?  There is a lot of talk of “focus” while on the hunt, but I believe most of the focus begins during the summer well before you head out in the fall.  I’m going to hit on some more specific elements in the next couple weeks, but here are a couple overarching thoughts to put in the old brain bank for next time you’re prepping for the early season.

Know yourself, and be honest with yourself.  Not many people realize this little secret, but the beauty of being honest with yourself… is that it doesn’t require you to be honest with others!  You can still talk a big game to your buddies and partake in all the obligatory self-aggrandizing!  Believe me, this is something I know very well.  But all half-joking aside, it is a lot harder to make improvements if you don’t start with a solid understanding of your own limitations.  Sometimes you have to challenge your own beliefs and self-image to improve.  Truly acknowledging your limitations and weaknesses can be tougher than it sounds.

Aim for skilled balance.  We have a finite amount of time each day, so focus on the weak points that will bring you the most improvement.  Don’t fall into a trap of focusing on one thing and honing it down to perfection, while neglecting other areas.  An example would be archery skills.  I know a lot of guys that want to deck out their equipment to the point where they can stand at the range and shoot a golf ball-sized group at 60 yards, when grouping a paper plate at 60 yards is plenty accurate for hunting deer-sized animals or larger.  If you’re trying to reach perfection, you’ve likely reached a point of diminishing returns, and it may be time to look for other areas where you may have more glaring weaknesses.  Maybe focus on draw hold time, quick shots, shooting while winded, shooting on cross-slopes, or put the bow down and pick up your pack for a scouting trip to the woods.  Focus energy on the weaknesses, and you’ll find more success.

What do you hate to work on?  Do that one first.  I kind of alluded to this a couple times above.  If you find something you enjoy, you’re more likely to strengthen it to the point of unbalance.  Everything needs to fall into place for a successful hunt:  Know where the animals are, be fit enough to get after them, understand how they behave, be able to go through all the steps of an ethical harvest, and have the ability to get back home with the meat.  Lacking ability or knowledge in any of those areas will result in a failure.  If there are areas for you to improve, rank them in the order you want to do them, and complete the list from bottom to top.  This will help you touch all the bases, and also motivates you to complete your least favorite tasks in order to get to the ones you enjoy.

Daydreaming with purpose. I prefer the term ‘daydreaming with purpose’ over ‘visualizing’.  Regardless of what you want to call it, this can really help prepare.  Take some time to focus, and walk yourself through a full day of the hunt.  Imagine the steps you’ll be taking in the field, the experiences you’ll be taking in with all five senses, and especially the challenges you will likely face.  Imaging yourself facing a challenge and calmly addressing it with a confident solution.  You’ll find that you’re actually training your brain for success, and will be less prone to frustration and negative thoughts.

 

6 Lightweight Gear Upgrades

Chasing the ultralightweight savings game can be as addicting as….pretty much anything else hunting-related, and equally as expensive.  Dang, I thought I was going to come up with a sweet metaphor there.  I love getting new gear, but I’m sometimes too cheap to drop the big bucks on the hottest stuff that all the cool kids are into.  I’m not always cheap, but I prefer to think I’m putting my dollars where they can do the most damage out in the woods.  Plus, selective cheapness provides more disposable income for important things like overpriced microbrews, truck tires, and full body tattoos.  So I actually only partake in two of those three things, but feel free to substitute in your own vices.  Anyway, I’ve come up with a quick list of some of my favorite lightweight pack items.  Some are higher end and some are dirt cheap.  I hope you can find a couple to use on your next daytrip or overnighter.

*All weights listed are actual measurements unless noted otherwise.

Steripen Ultra

UltraStanding1-e1428508636103.jpg (300×315)

 

The Steripen has been around for a while, but is new to me.  Not only is it 10 oz lighter than my Katadyn Hiker, but it also comes with the upside of size and time convenience as well.  What would you prefer? Slogging water for 20 minutes through a pump-style filter that takes up a quarter of your pack space, or waving a tiny lightsaber for 60 seconds.

The downside?  Unlike the pump filter, the Steripen only protects you from microorganisms.  It does not control cloudiness, chemicals, or floaters.  So make sure you have an idea of the water quality issues you may be facing before packing your gear.  It also has a vaguely similar appearance to a medical device.

Weight: 5 oz

Comparison: Katadyn Hiker – 15 oz

Hydrapak Seeker Collapsible Water Bottle (3L)

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I love this thing.  It’s lighter than a Camelbak, and you don’t have to sip through those annoying rubber straws.  It’s not rigid like a conventional water bottle, so finding a spot inside (or strapped outside) of an overfull pack is much easier.  The lack of a hose and the wide-mouth design make it much easier to clean and keep sanitary as well.  It’s quieter than a conventional water bottle too, since you can purge out the air to eliminate the ‘sloshing’ when the bottle is less than completely full.  That’s always been one of my pet peeves when trying to slink through the woods as quietly as possible.

Downside?  Like the Camelbak, it’s got that plastic taste.

Weight: 3.3 oz

Comparison: Camelbak 3L reservoir – 8 oz (claimed)

 

Outdoor Research Ultralight Dry Sack (35L)

OR Ultralight Dry Sack 35L lemongrass

How many packs do you have already?  If you’re like me, you’ve got at least one for week-long hunts, and one for day hunts, or maybe one or two that are supposed to be for both but really don’t work for either.  I use these dry sacks to add versatility to my frame pack, and have eliminated the need for a daypack for single day out-and-back hunts.  These are actually pretty damn reasonable for an “ultralight” labeled item, as I’ve actually found them for much less than other conventional dry bags.  For the burden of a couple extra ounces, my Eberlestock Mainframe pack now has the convenience, organization, and protection of a fully waterproof daypack, while still having the frame to haul meat.  Grab a couple different sizes to keep you organized for various hunting trip needs.

Downside? The material for these bags is very thin and could have durability issues, depending on where you hunt and what you’re crawling through in the field.  I’ve used them for several years and haven’t had any problems.

Weight: 3.2 oz

Comparison:  There are tons of dry sacks out there, and typical weights for 35L are around 8-10 oz or more

Black Ovis Lightweight Game Bags

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Although not cheap, they are probably the most reasonable in the lightweight game bag department.  The old standard was the Alaska Game Bag, and I still keep those around back at the truck just in case I need some backups.  The Black Ovis large bag kit comes with four bags, gloves, a lightweight tarp, a roll of flagging tape, and a mesh carry bag.  Pulling out the tarp, gloves, and flagging tape dropped the weight by a few ounces down to 13 oz.  But, bigger than the weight savings are the space savings.  The Alaska Bags are difficult to fit into a gallon-sized ziplock, and the Black Ovis bags are a little larger than a fist.

Downside?  I haven’t found any issues with them yet.

Weight: 13 oz

Comparison: Alaska Game Bags – 1 lb 8 oz

Nemo Fillo Elite Pillow: 2.8 oz

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This is a real pillow.  I have decided a pillow is a luxury that I will not forego.  I used to use the Thermarest compressible pillow, but that thing really doesn’t compress down very well, and it takes up too much valuable pack space (but it’s comfortable).  The Nemo pillow is smaller than a baseball when in its stuff sack.  It’s inflatable and has a soft, comfortable fabric surface.  Ignore the countless lightweight pillows out there on Amazon for $15.  Those feel like an old inflatable pool toy, and you would probably be more comfortable resting your head on a balled-up sweatshirt.

Downside? None found yet.

Weight: 2.8 oz

Comparison: Not using a pillow is always an option that many hunters are happy with, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  Hunting is hard and strenuous, take care of your neck.

Crystal Geyser Bottled Water (or similar) (16 fl oz): 0.4 oz

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This has got to be my ultimate cheapo-yuppy-ultralight-dummy tip. The typical bottled water packaging for brands such as Crystal Geyser, Arrowhead, or any generic store water is incredibly light, since it’s supposed to be disposable, duh.  For dayhunts where I won’t need more than a couple liters, I just pack a few of these.  They can be squashed down to purge any air from the bottle too, eliminating the annoying ‘slosh’ mentioned above.

Downside?  You’re constantly buying bottled water, even though you know tap water is fine.

Weight: 0.4 oz

Comparison – Nalgene (32 fl oz): 6 oz (I used the 32 fl oz Nalgene because it is more common, even though it’s twice the volume of the disposable bottle)

Economy of Elk Hunting Calories

It cannot be argued that wild elk meat is one of the most delicious and nutritious meats available to Americans.  But, it can come at a cost.  I’m not talking about the financial cost (hunting tags, equipment, travel, lost wages from bailing from work for a week, divorce settlements, etc.), I’m referring to cost in the form of calorie burden.  Elk meat is chock full of nutrition, but we put forth a lot of energy trying to harvest it.  But, before I dive into the calorie economics of hunting, let me just throw out this obvious disclaimer: I am not trying to say that any hunter looks to harvest animals with any one single goal in mind.  We hunters are all complex creatures, and the reasons we hunt are abundant and diverse.  But regardless of individual motives, if you’ve ever partaken in a multiday backcountry elk hunt without spotting game or hearing a single bugle, you may have found yourself questioning many of the reasons you choose hunting as a recreation and lifestyle.  It’s also important to consider our motivations compared to those of our ancestral hunters.  To them, calorie burden was their primary concern.  They were obviously not able to comprehend or quantify energy to units of such as calories (Quick high school chemistry review: One calorie represents the energy required to raise one liter of water by one degree Celsius, and one degree Celsius is equal to blah, blah, blah, blah…). They really only understood that they needed meat to keep themselves and their families alive, and that the more effort they put into an activity, the more nourishment they would need to survive another day.

So let’s get into it: How much energy do you expend while on a backcountry elk hunting trip?  Now, I’m admittedly trying to put a pin in a very broad question, so some assumptions must be made first.  Size of person, difficulty of terrain, load carried, fitness (or fatness) level, environmental conditions, and level of effort (intensity) all play into the calorie burning rate equation.  For this broad stroke, non-scientific article, I am making the assumption that (1) our hunter is 180 lbs, (2) he hikes in five miles into the mountains to camp, (3) he hikes several miles each day hunting, (4) he spends the majority of the day glassing or still-hunting, (5) he harvests a bull elk on the fourth day, and (6) he makes three strenuous trips packing gear and meat out of the woods by the end of the fifth day.

I have interpolated some calorie burning rates for a 180 lb hunter based upon information I have gathered from Nutristrategy.com and the Mayo Clinic.  Here are my estimates for calorie burn rates in calories/hour.

Activity Calories/hour
Orienteering 735
Climbing hills, carry over 42lb 735
Climbing hills, carrying daypack 600
Spotting, glassing 175
Packing meat out downhill 620
Bowling 245
Ballroom dancing 245

 

Below is an estimation in time spent at each activity on a hunt. The “Calories Over Baseline” estimates below are representative of the net, or additional calories that would be expended on an elk hunt, as opposed to calculating the total calories burned on the hunt.  This is based on premise that you would be doing some calorie-burning activities while hunting that are similar to your daily routine, such as preparing food, organizing sundries, and sleeping.  So, the calculations below subtract out the calories that would be spent if you lived out your normal day (about 120 calories/hour) and acquired meat from a more convenient and mundane source such as a grocery store.

 

5 Day Hunt Hours
Activity Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Total
Climbing hills, carrying over 42 lb 3 3
Spotting 3 7 7 4 21
Climbing hill, carrying daypack 5 5 5 3 7 25
Orienteering 2 2
Packing meat 4 7 11
Calories Over Baseline 4410 2785 2785 5130 6860 21970

 

By these calculations, you would be expending approximately 22,000 additional calories in order to harvest a mature elk over a five-day hunt.  My first impression is that this is a lot.  Way more than I expected.  But, I feel it is representative of the strenuous aspects of elk hunting.  Elk live in tough country, and a single person has to carry a serious payload of gear in order to get into elk country and live with them for a week.  You may take an established trail in and out of the woods, but much of your hunt is likely going to be cross-country.  There is a reason why hunting boots are built differently than hiking boots.

Given that elk roaming public land are naturally grass-fed, their muscle is generally much leaner that beef, and therefore has much fewer calories per pound.  Yet it somehow remains equally, nay, superiorly delicious.  If lean elk muscle contains about 33 calories per ounce, and you are able to retrieve 200 pounds of boned-out meat from your hunt, you are harvesting 105,600 calorie units of energy.  So, in our 5-day solo backcountry mountain hunt scenario, if our hunter burned 22,000 additional calories on his trip and harvested 105,600 calories worth of elk meat, he was still able to return with his meat payload at 80% efficiency.  For our ancestral hunter, that 200 pounds of meat would equate to over 50 total person-days of sustenance.  Plus, it would be a welcome change from the roots and possum and snow or weird mushrooms or whatever else they had found lying around.  In order to equate the total energy stored in that elk meat to something to which a more modern human can relate, 105,600 calories are about equivalent to each of the following: 2,300 strips of bacon, 320 avocados, 324 ground beef tacos, 51 gallons of Rockstar® energy drink, or 66 gallons of Coors Banquet® beer.  Although calorically equal, by no means am I suggesting that any of these items are nutritionally equal.

Now you may ask yourself, “What am I going to do with all these calories now that I’ve got them?”.  The Mayo Clinic offers energy burning options such as ballroom dancing or bowling (About 431 hours for either based on my conversions from their website).  But that’s a lot of time indoors, plus you’re probably going to take in a lot more calories from that Coors Banquet in order to participate in either of those.  My recommendation? Use those calories to Hunt Harder.